On the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy

The demise of streetcar systems like this one in Los Angeles was probably not due to their being bought out and shut down by car companies. Picture from the Huffington Post.

When I tell somebody about my research, they often bring up the alleged General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, a popular folk-tale in the history of American transport. The story goes something like this: At the early twentieth century, virtually every major North American city had a streetcar system, which was basically a lower-tech version of what still exists in a few cities such as Toronto and San Francisco. These systems posed a problem for the rapidly expanding car industry, and so a few car companies (most notably General Motors) bought out many local streetcar systems and immediately shut them down, in order to push the United States towards dependency on the private automobile.

Now I’m just a lowly PhD student, and my research focuses on intercity transport rather than urban transport. So there are many people more qualified than me to comment on whether or not this actually happened. What I can do is point to a few of these people and the arguments they make.  An excellent paper to read if you’re interested in this history is Zachary Schragg’s The Bus is Young and Honest. According to Schragg, the elimination of the New York City streetcars was more due to the bad reputation then held by streetcar companies than to any shady dealing by automobile executives. Like most forms of private transport infrastructure, New York’s streetcars functioned essentially as a monopoly. While some legislation tried to counteract this, for example by legally imposing a fare of a nickel, the streetcars did pretty well for themselves in the nineteenth century. Most people could not afford their own transport, and so anybody who wanted to travel within the city would have basically no choice but to accept the terms offered by the streetcar companies.  This caused resentment among those who thought a nickel was too much to pay for what was often a crowded, dangerous ride. Basically, The New York City streetcars were like the Comcast of their time.

The public got their comeuppance in the 1920s and 1930s, however, as inflation continuously cut down the value of the five cent fare and streetcar companies struggled to balance their books. Streetcar companies mounted a campaign to have the fare changed to a dime, but much of the public and political establishment was uninterested in helping an industry that had been so happy to exploit them when the shoe was on the other foot. When the mayor flatly refused their request for a fare increase, the streetcar lines cancelled several lines services to put public pressure on the mayor. The mayor’s response was to replace the streetcars with buses. And that was the beginning of the end for the New York streetcars.

Of course, Schragg’s account only covers New York City. But in my opinion it is far more likely that the demise of the American streetcar was due to this kind of local politics than that it was due to the conspiratorial actions of car manufacturers. Cars were already gobbling up huge chunks of passenger travel by the start of the 1930s; the United States did not need any extra push into car dependence. Furthermore, my own research has revealed that the pattern Schragg describes played a role in long-distance transport as well. American railways in the early twentieth century were monopolies, and like the streetcars, the public and the political classes often saw them as monopolistic, exploitative, and generally untrustworthy. This eventually resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which in 1920 was given veto power over any railway fare increases. This was absolutely crippling during the Great Depression, when the railways, faced with competition from the roads, couldn’t even adjust their fares without a lengthy series of government hearings. but when they tried to change the law to be more favourable, many of the railways’ complaints fell on deaf ears.

This seems to be a very common pattern: Privately owned infrastructures tend to be monopolies and so they often arouse public anger. This leads to regulations restricting the actions of the companies owning those infrastructures, but the public anger continues. As soon as a new and exciting technology whose problems are not yet widely understood provides a viable alternative to those monopolies, the regulations make it very difficult for the old system to compete, while the distrust of the people who own the old system makes it very difficult for them to get the regulations changed.

So no; General Motors probably did not buy out the streetcar systems in order to push the country towards car dependency. But that doesn’t doesn’tean that the story is not still interesting as a folktale. Why does it still have so much lasting power?

I think it has something to do with portraying our present-day concerns about technology into the past. Today, the car-based transportation system is not in a very strong discursive position. It is not a monopoly like the railways of the past, but it has still aroused concern and condemnation due to things like climate change, local air pollution, congestion, accidents, road rage, noise, and the bulldozing of neighbourhoods to build highways. To put it bluntly: the moral status of our transportation system is not very good right now. But people seem to have trouble understanding that the moral status of technological systems can change over time. People who are opposed to the car system today tend to assume that the only way such a system could have come into being in the first place is by some kind of trickery. Similarly, railroads and municipal light rail have a pretty good reputation these days, and so when people note that they used to be more dominant, it’s assumed that their downfall must have been due to foul play. Whence the popularity of the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy theory.  

The true story, that cars and buses might have actually looked like a pretty good idea in the 1930s, while trains and trams had a nasty reputation, is less appealing not only because it requires more nuance, but also because it has implications for the present day. If the Americans who so eagerly dashed towards a car-culture in the 1930s were so mistaken about it, then what does that say about the new kinds of infrastructure that get us excited today? It means that we might have to think much more carefully about replacing our existing technological systems with things like drone delivery, Google fibre, or 3D printing. It means that we need to be sceptical of anybody offering a quick technological fix to our problems today. We can still support radical new technologies, but only after a great deal more thought.

Visibility Politics: Why polite traffic stops are far from innocuous.

Last Wednesday, I noticed on twitter that the police in Warwickshire have been stopping cyclists to talk about visibility on the roads. This was intended to be an entirely non-punitive thing; officers engaged the cyclists in a polite discussion about the importance of visibility, gave them a free reflective armband, and sent them on their way.

It sounds pretty innocuous at first glance, but it had cyclists up in arms. Here are some replies that were made to the BBC coverage of the stops:

And here are some tweets reacting to the news:

Cyclists and cyclist organisations tend to bristle at suggestions that they dress more visbily. They tend to accuse police and other authorities that make such suggestions of victim-blaming, and point out that there actually isn’t much of an empirical case for the usefulness of high-visibility cycle gear. But to many people, this might seem bizarre. What could possibly be so objectionable about being more visible? Apart from being pretty much the tackiest thing imaginable when worn off a bike, a fluorescent yellow vest isn’t a massive hardship. And even if its actual utility is disputed, surely it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? Why would you want to put yourself at even the tiniest increased risk of an accident?

Superficially, to somebody who does not ride a bike and does not understand all the nuances of transport safety politics, these arguments make a lot of sense. But as is often the case with these things, they oversimplify the situation. In this post, I’m going to try to explain why visibility campaigns are misguided at best and counterproductive at worst. I can approach this issue as a cyclist who steadfastly refuses to wear high-vis gear, but also as an historian of transport: The history of transport shows that these apparently well-intentioned safety campaigns can have surprisingly elaborate political implications.

Illustration by Swedish artist Karl Jilg. Courtesy of Vox.

I’m going to start with the above image. It’s a clever way of depicting the dearth of space available in a city to law-abiding pedestrians. But how did we get here? After all, streets have been around for a lot longer than cars. And indeed, even at the turn of the twentieth century, when the earliest cars were already being driven in cities, urban streets were a crowded mess of pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, playing children, livestock, and the occasional automobile:

This picture, from Manchester Evening News, depicts a downtown Manchester street in 1914. Note the mixed use of the road, and the comparative freedom of pedestrians compared to today.

Anybody who is intersted in the politics and history of transportation and urban space should pick up a copy of Peter Norton’s excellent book, Fighting Traffic. It details exactly how American cities went from looking like the picture above to the car-dominated cities depicted in the cartoon. The historical facts in this post are taken from that book.

It turns out that well-meaning (or at least apparently well-meaning) safety campaigners have a lot to do how cars took over the city. When cars first appeared and began driving on on urban roads, the result was a lot of deaths. Pedestrians and, particularly tragically, children, were accustomed to being able to use the streets as they pleased, without having to look out for large metal vehicles passing by at high speeds. When that behaviour was combined with motorists’ desire to drive quickly, the results were tragic. This caused a public outcry against motorists, and various urban institutions began to look for solutions to the problem.

The first few solutions attempted to balance the rights of cars with those of other road users, while still ensuring that traffic flowed smoothly. This made a lot of sense at the time-cars were a recent innovation and mainly a recreational machine for the rich. So urban authorities, including police, safety advocates, and a new cadre of traffic control engineers, set about restricting motor vehicles so that they would fit in safely with the rest of the road users. Speed limits, curbside parking bans, and even mandatory speed governors were proposed as a way of “taming” the automobile, and a few of these were implemented and have survived to the present day.

This, however, did not suit drivers and their political lobby, who saw these restrictions as an attack on their freedom. And so they began an intense public relations campaign to push pedestrians off the road. A crucial element of this was the invention of a new word: “Jaywalker”. According to contemporary American slang, a “jay” was roughly defined an ignorant country person who did not know how to behave in a city. By combining this with “walker”, to describe pedestrians who crossed the road not at a crosswalk, motor interests were able to redefine a traditional right of pedestrians as evidence of idiocy. Jaywalking was not illegal at first, but the motor organisations used some very creative tactics to popularize the idea that pedestrians no longer belonged on the street. In one case boy scouts went around, stopping jaywalkers and handing out cards demonstrating the new safe way to cross the street at an intersection. In one particularly dramatic case in 1913 in Syracuse, New York, a man in a Santa suit used a megaphone to yell at jaywalkers he spotted. The implication was that jaywalking is unsafe and stupid, and that cars demanded new ways of being in the street. These tactics were roughly analogous to the polite approach now being taken by British police to encourage high-visibility gear. But it became more coercive over time. By the 1920s, cities had begun passing anti-jaywalking laws, and the ancient customs of the street were being rewritten to better accommodate cars.

Car organisations also set up road accident information services, whose representatives would investigate car accidents, take notes on them, and relay their information to the press. This, of course, allowed them to selectively interpret the facts of these accidents as being the fault of pedestrians, cyclists, or other road users. These victims often had no opportunity to talk back, because they were dead. And by promoting these framings, car advocates were eventually able to change popular conceptions of the street to be more favourable to them and their members.

The point of all this history is to illustrate that even the politest and most diplomatic of safety efforts still have a political implication: They inevitably present a particular interpretation of a safety threat, and by doing so, they propose the most effective ways of dealing with it. Car accidents, according to the 1920s motor lobby, were not the fault of cars on city streets, or of insufficient traffic laws, but of pedestrians and other road users who were unwilling to adapt their behaviour to new technology. By framing the problem in this way, they framed the solution: Other road users should give way to motor vehicles. And so the great urban chasm depicted in the above cartoon began to open.

So stopping cyclists to talk about visibility is far from a neutral act. It reinforces the SMIDSY excuse for accidents: “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”. It gives motorists an excuse to not look for cyclists quite as much as they otherwise would. And it downplays other possible ways in which the problem of drivers not seeing cyclists could be addressed. Here are a few possible alternative measures that emerge if you frame the problem as being the fault of drivers rather than of cyclists:

  • Write laws that negate SMIDSY as a mitigating factor in traffic prosecutions. Motorists are responsible for being aware of their surroundings.
  • Build more cycle lanes, and enforce the existing lanes more effectively: Drivers don’t have to worry quite so much about seeing individual cyclists if they recognize that a certain part of the road are off-limits to them.
  • Use these kinds of polite traffic stops, but target them at motorists as well. Find some way to test how well motorists are looking out for cyclists, and use that as a basis to encourage them to look out more.
  • Public relations campaigns emphasizing that motorists are responsible for seeing cyclists, regardless of what they are wearing.

This post is not intended to demonise drivers. Most drivers, I expect, do keep their eyes peeled for cyclists. But there enough of them that do not that we should be concerned about normalising that by shifting the burden onto the cyclists themselves. So hopefully this gives some explanation of why I steadfastly refuse to wear a neon yellow vest. Because the high-vis vest is essentially the “jaywalker” of the twenty-first century. It uses safety concerns to argue for a certain conception of the rights and responsibilities of urban space.

Why e-bikes make me nervous

A few years ago, while riding my bike along the Don Valley cycle paths (a gorgeous urban cycle route that any cyclist in the area should check out), I was, to my confusion, passed by a man who couldn’t have been younger than 60 riding a rickety old bicycle without even pedalling that hard! Furious at this affront to my honour as a cyclist, I gave chase. Keeping pace with him for a few minutes was just about all I could manage. Frustrated and confused, I eventually noticed the high-tech looking plastic box sitting on the frame of the man’s bike. I had been racing with somebody who had the extra benefit of an electric motor. This was my first encounter with the increasingly popular phenomenon of the e-bike.

In principle, e-bikes are a fantastic development. Cycling is an excellent means of alternative transport: It is sometimes faster than cars, it is certainly healthier and more sustainable, and switching to cycling might even make you happier. But cycling does involve a certain amount of privilege. To use a bicycle as a useful way of getting around, you have to be reasonably able-bodied and fit, and you have to live in a city where the distances and grades are manageable. E-bikes eliminate some of these requirements; allowing people to use bicycles who may not otherwise be physically capable of doing so. And even if the argument can be made that e-bikes are not, strictly speaking, active transport, their status as very light-weight electric vehicles means that their contribution to climate change will be minuscule, even compared to that of an electric car.

The problem, however, emerges with the fact that very few technologies remain static. E-bikes are a relatively new development, and like most other new technologies, we can expect them to change considerably as they become more popular, and as the people who make them have more money to pay engineers and inventors to improve them. E-bikes currently exist as a kind of bricolage combination of cell phone batteries and bicycle technology, but they will evolve. And what they evolve into may force us to rethink what actually constitutes a bicycle.

Notice how it still has pedals.

This has, in fact, already happened in the case of motorcycles. A brief glance at wikipedia demonstrates that motorcycles are about as old as cars. These early motorcycles were literally motor-cycles: cycles with motors on them. Attach a motor and an extra stabilizing wheel to a penny-farthing, and voila! You’ve got a motorized vehicle. Motorcycles thus have a completely separate genaeology from that of the car, which was initially conceived as a horseless carriage. If you are at all familiar with e-bikes, then this should start to sound familiar.

1910 FN

A 1910 Fabrique Nationale motorcycle.

To make a long history short, motorcycles continued to look like bicycles for some time, and as bicycles became more sophisticated, so too did motorcycles. Gradually, the pedals disappeared, to be replaced with a stronger engine which in turn required a sturdier frame. Motorcycles began to diverge from their pedal-powered cousins. By the 1930s, motorcycles had taken on a distinct form of their own, with almost all signs of their pedal-powered history expunged in favour of more power, speed, and durability. And these, in turn, gave rise to the high-speed crotch-rockets that can often be seen in flagrant violation of speed limits today.

A 1920 Indian Powerplus.

A 1930 “Squariel” motorcycle. By now, almost all signs of its bicycle ancestry are gone.

This is a very crude history, mostly culled from wikipedia, so you shouldn’t take it as authoritative. My expertise is cars, trains and (occasional) aircraft; not motorcycles. But you only have to look at the pictures to see the clear trend: The metaphor of biological evolution is actually a very good one to describe the development of motorcycles and many other technologies besides: A mutation (innovation) caused one small population (motor bicycles) to diverge from a parent species (pedal-powered bicycles), at which point it was subjected to a different set of selection pressures (a different user base), and gradually diverged to become something completely different.

As with biological evolution, the question of when a new species actually emerged is a purely subjective one-a crucial consideration when we consider the future of e-bikes. At this stage, there is no reason why e-bikes should not be allowed in the bike paths and bike lanes that make cycling a safe and enjoyable means of transport for so many people. We could justifably be accused of ableism or age discrimination if we did not allow them to use these spaces. But e-bikes, like motorcycles before them, will almost certainly evolve into something distinct from bicycles. They could become faster and dangerous for the slower cyclists around them. But at their point their riders may not take kindly to being pushed off of the bike paths they have become accustomed to using. Indeed, e-bike technology will likely evolve based on the assumption that they will be used in these spaces. The possible outcome could be that what was once bike paths will become a kind of second-tier road, dominated by electric motorcycles on which pedal cyclists will be, once again marginalized.

This might not happen. Technological development is impossible to predict. But we do need to acknowledge that, one way or another, the technologies we use today will change into something else. And as they do so, the social practices and political structures that have built up around them might not change with them, or at least might not change in a way that resolves the problems caused by changing technology. Laws and habits are much harder to modify than bicycle frames. That means that when we think about how to integrate e-bikes and other new technologies into our society, we need to consider not only how they are, but also how they will be.

Tesla, Patents, and Ideology

Next time the world is getting you down, just remember that there’s a major car company that uses internet memes from the 1990s in its publicity.

You may have heard that Tesla Motors recently released all their patents to the world for free. Here’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s explanation for why he took this somewhat unorthodox move:

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

When it comes to the charging infrastructure, there is a very good reason why Tesla might want to do this. By allowing anybody to build a supercharger station on their own initiative and on their own dime, Tesla is effectively downloading the risk of building their infrastructure onto other people. Given the growing popularity of and excitement around Tesla cars and electric cars more generally, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a significant number of people who saw a local electric car charging station as a good investment. This will help reassure potential buyers that they can count on having charging stations available nearly anywhere, which will in turn help Tesla sell cars.

The decision to release all the patents on the cars themselves is a bit more puzzling. I’m not going to presume to fully understand its reasons or its implications. I’m not a patent lawyer, and while the efficacy of patents is discussed in the academic circles in which I travel, it’s not really my topic of expertise. It will be interesting, however, to see whether this leads to more electric vehicles being built using Tesla technology, to compete with Tesla. Maybe this will open the door for specialized electric vehicles such as buses, delivery vans, or construction vehicles. Maybe a bigger ecosystem of competing electric vehicles will give Tesla an edge by further legitimizing the technology, which Tesla will retain their lead in due to their considerable experience making them. Or maybe they will be awash in cheap knockoffs within 10 years and be driven out of all but the luxury car market. It’s probably a good move for the planet, but as for what it means for Tesla, it’s probably too early for me, or anyone, really, to say.

But one thing that is interesting about this is the language that Musk uses to justify the decision. He is using the anti-intellectual property language which has been developing for some time now in opposition to the software and entertainment industries. Musk is, at least apparently, putting this language into practice in a very big way. In fact his blog post makes explicit reference to the open source movement. Of course, it’s possible that Musk is just paying lip service to the idea of open source, while he is actually releasing his patents for purely business reasons. Political figures like Musk always attempt frame their actions by reference to whatever ideology or symbolism is trendy at any given point in time.

But even if Musk is merely posturing, there is still something interesting here. The ideology of the open source movement is becoming increasingly important. Virtually anybody who knows how to program a computer and doesn’t stand to make a lot of money from patents will say that it’s a good idea. Google and Mozilla both make liberal use of open source software, and creatives, such asAmanda Palmer and the guys behind Cards Against Humanity all openly encourage the pirating of their work.

Maybe the recent development at Tesla is a signal that this ideology is starting to effect how the technology business works. If more technology companies follow the example set by Google and Tesla, then it could mean a big change in how technology gets developed. It would fundamentally change the rules by which engineers and entrepreneurs play, the effects of which are probably too complicated for anybody to realistically predict. And that would have some kind of effect on the kinds of technologies that get developed, the speed with which they get developed, and the ease with which they diffuse into society.

If that’s the case, then this is evidence of something that is constantly ignored in discussions of business and technology: ideology matters. Economists and policymakers like to assume that firms and engineers are perfectly rational calculators who follow their business sense and whose behaviour is basically predictable. But who could have predicted the rise of the open source movement? Ultimately, Engineers are people. And so are entrepreneurs. And like all other people, they filter their perceptions about the world through a lens of ideas, assumptions, and principles, and that changes how they act, and has a profound impact on the technologies they develop. That means that technology, like anything else, is susceptible to the influence of culture. Most intriguingly, it means that we can influence technology purely through ideas.

Wednesday Quickies

I really don’t want to see these become popular. Does that make me a curmudgeon? From discovery.com.

1) There’s a bit of hype emerging about some Chinese researchers who are working on a “super-maglevtrain, which would supposedly be capable of speeds of up to 1,800 miles per hour. They’ve even made a prototype! Unsurprisingly, it’s being framed as competition for the hyperloop, but that doesn’t seem very plausible to me. The super-maglev is a full vacuum system; basically the same kind of vacuum tube transport system that has been a pipe dream (heh) for over a century now.

The super maglev has the same problem as all the other vacuum train proposals: It’s really bloody difficult to maintain a vacuum in a tube that stretches for hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Musk’s proposal is neat because it proposes a way around that. The super maglev proposes no such thing. Still, it’s neat that this kind of thing is getting media attention.

2) The pace of self-driving car development has really accelerated in the last few weeks. Google is looking to commercialize them, and now there’s a proposed amendment in the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic that would legalize them. The amendment was put forward by a collection of European countries: Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, and Italy. This suggests that they might be changing their domestic laws soon as well.

If Europe becomes a hotbed for the commercialization of autonomous vehicles, then Volvo might be poised to benefit. They have just released 100 self-driving cars into Gotheburg traffic, and made a shiny video demonstrating how self-driving cars could free up road space and reduce congestion. This is a pretty clear example of socio-technical visions at work, and such a public relations effort suggests that Volvo is getting serious about autonomous vehicles. It looks like the race might be on to actually start selling these things.

3) Also on the subject of transport, a few people are getting excited about this ridiculous flying bike thing. I’ll admit it looks like it might be fun, but I can’t see it having any value as anything other than a very expensive toy. And do we really need any more very expensive, carbon emitting motorized toys for grown men? Furthermore, do we want to see these things flying freely over national parks? I think maybe we should push for some pretty strict regulation if they actually start selling these. Otherwise we risk giving those jerks who floor it down city streets on their motorcycles the power of flight.

4) Lastly, YouTube is going to buy Twitch! In case you haven’t heard of it, Twitch is an internet video site designed specifically to allow people to watch and comment on video games. A few months ago, I was an avid follower of an ingenious Twitch channel called Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which the chat stream could be used to control a game of pokemon. The result was as hilarious as it was chaotic.

But Twitch is also well-known for the considerably more serious phenomenon of e-sports, and the initial bid on the site of over $1 billion suggests that YouTube has big plans for the purchase. With google’s financial muscle behind them, e-sports could become a lot more important. If e-sports start to compete for viewers with traditional physical sports, then we’re probably in for another annoying round of moral panic about how video games are making people sedentary and obese.

A few thoughts on HS2

High-speed 2 certainly looks cool. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to improve the rail network.

Whenever a fellow academic hears that I’m studying British railway history, they almost invariably ask me my opinion on HS2. For those of you who are not familiar with British transport politics and related acronyms, HS2 stands for “High Speed 2”: A planned extension of high-speed railway track from London to Manchester and Leeds. (High Speed 1 refers to the only high-speed track that currently exists in the United Kingdom, linking London with the Chunnel). The plans are controversial, and in addition to the predictable NIMBYs, HS2 is opposed by a large coalition of environmentalists, public spending critics, and at least one one prominent railway journalist turned Mayoral candidate for London. I’m not going to try and critique the cost-benefit analyses offered by either side of the debate. I just don’t have the expertise (Though, as I argued in Manchester Policy Blogs, a cost-benefit analysis is not necessarily a useful approach when considering transport infrastructure that will last for decades). But there is an interesting discussion to be had about why, of all possible rail investment schemes, HS2 was chosen. I’m going to tackle that in this post.

High speed rail gets a lot of attention all over the world because it’s fascinating. It’s big, fast and futuristic. That makes it a very tempting project for any government that can pony up the cash and weather the inevitable storm of objections. But a more sober assessment suggests that it might not actually be as revolutionary as is commonly suggested. Anybody with a web browser can confirm that the railways in Britain are already considerably faster than the roads. In fact, all you need is a web browser. Google maps suggests that the fastest route from, say, Edinburgh to London by car will get you there in just under 7 hours. If you then have a look at the same journey by rail, the average time is about five hours, with some trips taking as little as four and a half. So trains are already a good deal faster than cars. And yet, people still generally prefer to travel by car. HS2 will only affect two routes in England, and on a trip to Manchester-its furthest destination-it will decrease journey times by about an hour-about a 50% cut in the time it takes. That is certainly useful for business travellers from Manchester who want to make a morning meeting in London, but does it really make rail that much more attractive to driving, which currently takes three and a half hours without traffic? I think that maybe if we could bring people onto the rails by making them faster than cars, the existing lines would have already accomplished that.

The problem is that even the fastest trains in the world don’t offer a solution to what transport scholars call the last mile problem. Before boarding a train, passengers must somehow get from their house to a station, and after arriving they will have to find a way from the station to their ultimate destination. These first and last legs of the journey can often be inconvenient, which is why a car, which completely eliminates the problem by providing door-to-door transportation, can be very attractive. In Britain, where many rural railways were gutted in the 1960s, the last mile is actually quite a bit longer than a mile. If you live in, say, Aberfeldy, then your nearest railway station is in Dunkeld, which is nearly 20 miles away. So the train is probably not much of an option to get from Aberfeldy to London, even if it is high-speed from Manchester onwards.

What this suggests to me is that a good way to encourage more use of the rail network is not to increase its speed, as HS2 proposes to do, but increase its coverage. Even after significant cost overruns, the reopening of the 100 mile Waverly Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle cost £348 million. At that price of between £30 and £40 million per mile, you could reopen somewhere around 1000 miles of more conventional railtrack to connect to regional centers in Britain with the £43 million estimated cost of HS2 (Some . That would mean fewer people with no choice but to lose their cars if they want to travel more than a few miles. There is an element of social justice to this as well. Rural communities without easy access to a rail network can suffer from social isolation, especially as fuel costs go up. From their perspective, then, a £40 billion government expenditure on a fancy high-speed rail network to connect England’s largest cities would not seem like much of a boon when they don’t even have a neighbourhood station. If the aforementioned business travellers are the ones who benefit most, then such a project seems decidedly contemptuous of both rural-dwellers and the poor.

But we’re not talking much about investment in local lines,  are we? High speed rail is big, flashy, and exciting, and the modest two-car trains that I take into the peak district are not. In democracies, then, projects like HS2 will always have a political advantage over their smaller counterparts. That’s a problem.  To solve it, maybe we should find a way to make regional transportation just as exciting as big and fast projects on the trunk routes. How? I don’t know. I’m not an engineer. But I do know that there are people out there who could come up with some neat ideas if they put their minds to it. We are on the verge of a transport future that involves self-driving cars, flying drones, and maybe even a hyperloop. Surely dreamers like Elon Musk can come up with something big and exciting to connect small villages to the transportation network, rather than merely speeding up travel between big cities which are already well-connected. Maybe it involves cheap comfortable, self-driving cabs. Maybe it involves laying some new light rail track through rural areas. Maybe it involves a new generation of buses designed to attract passengers who would normally shun bus travel.

People like big, flashy projects, and that means that they get funding. Rather than resisting that tendency, transport planners and environmentalists should take advantage of it! I keep coming back to the hyperloop on this blog, despite it’s fantastical nature, because it is an excellent example of how technological visions work. The Hyperloop captured the public imagination by releasing a single sixty page paper. So a new concept for regional transportation wouldn’t even have to be technically or economically likely. It would simply have to get the public excited about the idea of improving the transport links to small towns and villages. That would empower more pragmatic thinkers to find plausible ways to solve the problem. This doesn’t only apply in the United Kingdom, by the way. High-speed rail is a popular policy option among environmentalists in Canada and the United States, but that ignores the massive success enjoyed by, for example GO Transit, the Toronto commuter rail operator, in recent years. Places with GO lines tend to use them.

So is HS2 a good idea? I don’t know, although if it’s a choice between more rail infrastructure and more motorways, I’ll go with HS2 in a heartbeat. But maybe there are alternatives that would be more effective. And maybe we need to find a way to make those alternatives exciting. Somebody tell Elon Musk to get on it.